The Reproductive Rights Movement: A Critical Analysis of the Presence of the White Gaze Adrianna Zawojek, John Ou, Megha Kadiyala, Nicolly Figueiredo The history behind the fight for women’s reproductive rights is a long and arduous one, dating all the way back to over 110 years ago. In 1916, Margaret Sanger, a eugenicist and known racist, opened the first birth control clinic. 3 years later, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau (these organizations would later coalesce into Planned Parenthood). In 1960, the FDA approved the first-ever prescription birth control pill. However, the movement got set back 10 years when Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court Decision prohibited married couples from using contraceptives; infuriated with the decision, protests arose in the 1970s. The 70s were a crucial time for the movement, with three major governmental decisions paving the way for the future: Congress enacted Title X of the Public Health Service Act, making contraceptives available to everyone regardless of income; In 1972, Eisenstadt v. Baird made birth control available to all unmarried individuals; Roe v. Wade occurred in 1973, legalizing abortion; the Hyde Amendment curbed change and restricted access to abortion care by pushing low-income women out of the conversation in 1976. However, things took a downward turn in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was elected as president, quickly being known as the first U.S. president to very publicly- and very aggressively- oppose abortion. The Gag Rule of 1984 prohibited any U.S. family planning funds from being sent to any foreign organization that provides counseling or referrals in regards to abortion; Planned Parenthood refused to comply, resulting in their immediate defunding. Soon after, 1985 and 1987 became terror years. Anti-family planning groups launched a “Year of Pain and Fear” campaign, violently attacking any family planning and abortion-providing centers; Reagan proposed the Title X Gag Rule, forbidding family planning centers from speaking about abortion with any client, under any circumstance. In 1976, the first over-the-counter pregnancy tests became available, widening accessibility to almost the entire U.S. population, and one year after that, Planned Parenthood began providing abortion services. In 1993, when Bill Clinton was elected president, five obstacles hindering the movement were removed; the Title X Gag Rule, the Global Gag Rule, and two federal abortion bans that had been instituted by Reagan.
However, it’s one step forward, two steps back when President Bush signed into law an abortion ban that officially criminalizes abortion- and women do not stay silent. The March for Women’s Lives took place in 2004, which is one of the largest pro-choice demonstrations in history. Soon enough, in 2009, Barack Obama repealed the Global Gag Rule and removed Bush’s abortion ban. Simultaneously, Wisconsin, the founding home of Planned Parenthood, lost access to abortion care services. PPWI (Planned Parenthood Wisconsin) is defunded, and their 16-year contract with the Well Woman Program is forcibly ended. This was followed by two additional attempts to defund PPWI in 2016, but PPWI’s two lawsuits against the state prevailed and they remain standing. In 2022, Roe v. Wade was overturned, leaving the right to abortion up to the state governments. Because Roe v. Wade was mostly a private health-based decision; women of color and low-income womens’ access and inclusion in the decision was heavily limited. For these women, their bodily autonomy was still something that they were fighting for, which launched the Reproductive Justice movement in 1994. This framework was founded by a group of black women who were unsatisfied with the lack of intersectional solutions to the issue of abortion rights. This movement aimed to bring abortions into the hands of the women that had been excluded from Roe v. Wade, and improve housing, daycare, and healthcare for black mothers so they can have systems to support them when they choose to have children. Recently, the first over-the-counter birth control pill was FDA-approved. This raises questions about how the accessibility of contraceptives and how the reproductive landscape of the U.S. will look in the future. However, the fight to equitably include all women in the pro-choice movement persists. Over time, the reproductive rights movement has changed under the influence of the white gaze. Pro-choice activists and leaders attempted to create policy changes, and to do so, they operated within the confines of the white gaze; marginalized people were sacrificed to achieve a degree of reform, but equitable access to healthcare/abortion care remains out of reach. The white gaze has restricted effective social change within the reproductive rights movement; access to reproductive care remains inequitable as a result of larger systemic inequality. In an effort to change current government policy and laws, pro-choice organizations ignored the eugenicist history of abortions within the United States, and how abortions have been weaponized against women of color to constrict POC populations and control the
development/growth of POC communities. The abortion rights movement was, and is, somewhat assimilationist in nature as many of its efforts were siphoned toward adjusting government policy rather than addressing poverty and its effects on pregnant people, and how many women of color are either prevented from having children, or forced to have them, based on when it is most convenient for the dominant class. More specifically, the Hyde Amendment had a detrimental effect on many poor women, especially poor women of color, forcing them to have children they cannot afford or take care of.
As a result of this forced birth, low-income women endure more financial hardship, "fall into poverty, face unemployment, and have worse health outcomes” (Buchanan & Weitz, 2022). At the same time, many women of color are disproportionately incarcerated and forcibly sterilized. Both of these narratives are ignored within the larger pro-choice movement which pushes toward reinstating Roe v. Wade, but not necessarily reforming institutions that serve to oppress impoverished women of color. Instead of radically redefining the American government and its contradictions concerning liberty and gender, political activists turned to working within the patriarchal and white supremacist system. Establishing policies like the Title X Public Health Service Act, Roe v. Wade, and Dobbs v. Jackson has proved ineffective at creating cultural change that still impacts women of color. For true equitable change to be achieved, there must be a push toward acknowledging intersectional identities within the pro-choice movement, as well as changing perceptions about abortion within community-level grassroots movements. Changes in attitudes toward women/mothers of color, as well as work to improve multiple systems that disadvantage them (carceral system, healthcare system, education system) can create profound change for women of color in the reproductive care system. However, the pro-choice movement focuses solely on government policy to improve healthcare for women, so as a result, many of the changes achieved by the pro-choice movement were not equitable in nature and served to preserve systems of inequality instead of dismantling institutions which prioritize whiteness and sideline racialized people. Initially, the white gaze impacted the reproductive rights movement in the form of eugenics. During the height of eugenics, abortion rights were being fought for, but only in an effort to weaponize abortion as a tool to oppress minority communities and diminish their strength. The movement continued to perpetuate the white gaze, however, as time progressed, this was accomplished through the willful ignorance of how abortion bans disproportionately affected low-income women. The white gaze continues to exist in the pro-choice movement, and it does this by erasing the stories of marginalized women to uplift the dominant narrative of white feminists. When discussing abortion in the context of eugenics and the white gaze, it is essential to recognize historically-implemented oppressive practices that have targeted marginalized communities, particularly women of color. The control of women’s bodies, sexuality, and reproduction is connected to the suppression of communities of color.
This makes it important to acknowledge how at the beginning of the pro-choice movement, support for abortion was not altruistic, but rather, intentional and white-supremacist in nature. Abortion was weaponized against women of color; this manifested in the abuse of contraceptives against people of color, and imprisonment of upwards of two million individuals, the majority of whom are people of color. The incarceration of women of color at increased rates was intentional; within the carceral system, states are granted the right to conduct forced sterilizations and hysterectomies. Incarcerating women of color allowed states to systematically restrict their reproductive rights and sterilize them, and this practice has persisted. Sterilization continues today; most notably in Tennessee, where a judge declared that if women received a birth control implant, their sentence could be reduced by 30 days. One organization that ‘advocated’ for abortion rights was the American Birth Control League; however, their ‘advocacy’ had no real interest in eliminating oppressive restrictions against women and women of color within the healthcare industry. Instead, the League supported abortion with the intention of “the defective and the insane…members of the race…not continu[ing] to reproduce themselves.” Abortion was supported under the condition that it would be weaponized against women of color, thus perpetuating white supremacy in the early abortion movement’s race for social change. Throughout history, the reproductive rights movement has continuously pressed for changes in government policy to grant abortion rights to women. However, the mainstream pro-choice movement has failed to acknowledge how intersections between gender, class, and race play a large role in deciding who has the right to choose. Historically, abortion movements’ approaches to implementing policy with the purpose of providing access to reproductive care conformed to the white gaze, and therefore, was reactionary rather than revolutionary. For instance, the landmark policy resulting from these efforts- the conclusion of Roe v. Wade in 1973- while seeming equitable and inclusionary on the surface, indirectly restricted the level of reproductive care toward marginalized groups. Roe v. Wade was established on the argument that each person has a right to privacy, and therefore, people retain the right to make private decisions about their reproductive systems, such as deciding to have an abortion. Roe v. Wade’s structure was susceptible to attack because it didn’t acknowledge how many low-income women of color are reliant on public healthcare services. The privacy-based argument that Roe v. Wade was based on would later allow the government to
intervene in women’s reproductive healthcare decisions; this manifested in the Hyde Amendment. The fight for women’s abortion rights was incomplete in its attack on government policy; it left holes within legislation and allowed for women of color to be disproportionately affected. Systems of hegemony, patriarchy, and oppression persisted for many racialized communities. This is exemplified by further amendments to the Roe v. Wade decisions, such as the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976. The Hyde Amendment declared that federal funds were no longer going to cover the cost of abortions, other than in special instances of incest and rape. This means that government programs such as Medicaid would not reimburse abortion costs. The white gaze framed the proposition of this bill as a financial conquest, however, the Hyde amendment specifically targeted marginalized groups. The group that is most likely to rely on Medicaid, low-income POC, is also the same group that is most likely to need abortions. Low-income women who had to fund abortion procedures by themselves “were unable to do so in the post-Hyde period”, and as a result, “20% of the women who would have obtained an abortion… carried their pregnancy to term.” Women forced to carry their pregnancies to term faced financial difficulty to support their children. For half a century before Roe V. Wade was revoked, the dominant narrative depicted that the issue over reproductive rights had been ‘solved,’ and across the nation everyone had the ability to have an abortion. In reality, policies such as this amendment worked in the shadows to restrict access to abortion, to economically disadvantaged communities, as well as communities of color. Therefore, it can be argued that the success and progress of the movement only applied to certain (privileged) groups, and real, equitable change is yet to come. The abortion debate intensified over the years; factionalism began to emerge within the movement. Liberationists argued that white feminists' focus on government abortion policies often ignored the disparities in reproductive care faced by marginalized communities. They pointed out that while new policy changes gave white women better access to abortion services, women of color, low-income women, and those living in rural areas still encounter significant barriers to accessing reproductive healthcare. Currently, abortion rights remain a contentious issue in U.S. politics, with ongoing efforts to restrict abortion rights at the state and national level. The topic has deeply embedded itself into the nation’s politics, with the partisan divide intensifying throughout the years.
The topic of abortion has been utilized by both parties; “Pro-Choice” being adopted by the majority of Democrats and “Pro-Life” being adopted by the majority of Republicans. Sentiments surrounding abortion are being weaponized to gain support, and in doing so, only a carefully curated dominant narrative is being portrayed.
This also highlights that abortion rights have become a political issue, rather than a social issue. This is a result of the assimilationist approach taken by the pro-choice movement, and its inability to pursue cultural changes and systemic change. This narrative lacks the perspectives of the marginalized groups being affected by abortion policies the most. It is important, however, to highlight how decisions such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade have different levels of impact on POC women. States such as Texas, Mississippi, and Florida banned abortion and denied access to life-saving reproductive care. Women were affected differently based on intersections of race and class because of institutional privileges granted to upper class white women that were not extended to low income women. Intersectionality has not been taken into account within the reproductive rights movement. In 2023, Lauren Miller, a white woman who resides in Texas, had to travel to Colorado in order to receive an abortion; her life was at risk because of an abnormality in her pregnancy. As of now, she has pursued a case against the state, suing them for not providing proper support. The case has gained momentum and received support from other pro-choice activists. The visibility is good for the movement; however, there are many stories of women flying out of their home states to receive abortions, and most of these testimonies center on high-income white women. The dominant narrative washes away the struggles of marginalized groups in the face of new abortion bans, and how many cannot afford to simply fly to a different state in order to access reproductive care. Miller’s all-encompassing narrative highlights how dangerous a single, dominant story can be. The white gaze erases narratives of low-income and racialized women, and further excuses lawmakers from addressing the ways their laws discriminately impact marginalized communities. There is no harm in showing the struggles of a white woman; it is crucial to expose different ways that women have been impacted by abortion bans. However, the issue arises when this narrative is the only one being perpetuated, and low-income, racialized women are being left behind. The movement continues but remains ineffective because many dominant groups are unable to address their privilege and sacrifice their power in the name of institutional change. The pursuit of policy that attempted to provide access to abortion care was not revolutionary in nature because of its conformity to the white gaze. This approach toward abortion access contributed to larger systems of oppression that center whiteness and sideline women of color through economic and other institutional means. However, during the 1990s’ a
shift toward holistic and intersectional action within the abortion rights movement developed. Acknowledging that the current pro-choice movement did little to alter the position of marginalized women within oppressive institutions, a group of black women gathered in Chicago to develop a new framework to address these concerns; the new grassroots movement that arose was titled the reproductive justice movement. This new framework was adopted by the Black Women’s Caucus of the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance and bolstered in its strong advocacy for a human rights perspective when considering the issue of reproductive healthcare. The In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda differs from assimilationist pro-choice movements, in that it considers “the intersections of race, gender, class, sexual orientation and gender identity with the situational impacts of economics, politics and culture that make up the lived experiences of Black women in this country.” The chair of the organization further explains their resistance to the white gaze: “ Our Black Reproductive Justice Policy Agenda centers the intersectional impact of race and gender and offers solutions for us to be able to live free from oppression. Reproductive Justice is a public health issue, and we call on our elected officials to champion these recommendations to break down institutional racism so we have full control of our reproductive destinies” (Moss, 2023). The reproductive justice movement believes that many issues are interconnected and need to be resolved on a greater systemic level to address problems concerning abortion healthcare. In Our Own Voice addresses many institutions in its attempt to broaden reproductive freedoms, such as the “health care [institution], dignified birth, and access to abortion care; equity in housing and education; fair employment and clean water; and the full range of social, economic, political, and cultural [issues].” The reproductive justice framework takes into account the systemic racism faced by women of color, and how this affects their access to reproductive healthcare. In doing this, the reproductive justice movement defies the white gaze. The influence of the white gaze on the reproductive rights movement manifested in different ways; in the beginning, the pursuit of abortion rights was underscored by a deeper systemic silencing of marginalized communities; this entailed the use of abortion to promote a racist, eugenic agenda. As the movement developed, so did the approach; a constantly changing perception wavered between illegal and legal, exclusive and inclusive, inequitable and equitable.
Despite changing circumstances though, the white gaze ensured that no matter what legislation was passed, it did not cause real and lasting change to existing power dynamics within U.S. society. Abortion was advocated for, but to abort babies of color and sterilize women of color; later on, abortion was accessible, but only to high-income white women; reproductive rights were being fought for, but only through the lens of the white gaze. The future of this movement remains uncertain, as pro-choice advocates continue to fight for reproductive rights. The stage is set on the outcome of the 2024 presidential elections, which will most likely determine the direction abortion legislation takes in the future. At the current moment, the United States is moving towards policies that, simultaneously, prevent women from having access to abortions - manifested in the overturn of Roe v. Wade, now states hold decisions - and promote sterilization of women of color - Tennessee case cited earlier. Looking forward to the change, the movement must work on not only acquiring reproductive rights through legislation but also ensuring availability to them that is guaranteed for all people. By not leaving behind marginalized groups, the pro-choice movement will be able to resist the white gaze and make lasting institutional change. As it could be noticed, the pro-choice movement has begun to have women of color, low-income women, and minority women rise to the forefront as leaders; and it is in recent years that real awareness and real power change has begun to occur, if only in miniscule amounts.
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